For nearly the entire year leading up to the release of "The Fifth Estate," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has actively campaigned against the film, which depicts the creation of his controversial online organization. He's done everything he can to ensure the film's failure; supposedly he even met with Benedict Cumberbatch early on to implore him not to accept the lead role in the film. WikiLeaks, with its mission of fighting against government corruption by forcing transparency through the release of classified documents, and the impact it had (and is still having) on the landscape of modern journalism, is a subject ripe for exploration. That the film opened this weekend with the lowest debut of any wide release so far this year may be related to the factual inaccuracies that so angered Assange, but more likely has to do with the ways it squanders an interesting subject to emerge as a timely, but ultimately bloodless biopic.
Beginning in the early days of WikiLeaks and culminating with the Iraq War Logs and then the release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department diplomatic cables, the film uses computer hacker and technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (author of the book of one of two books screenwriter Josh Singer credits as source material) as the audience conduit into Assange's world. At first a devoted acolyte of Assange's mission of governmental transparency, Berg (sensitively played by Daniel Brühl, "Rush") effectively puts his life on hold to assist Assange in making WikiLeaks into the powerful political force it eventually became. While the site becomes a phenomenon, the differing ideologies between the two men over how exactly the site will divulge the information it receives creates an irreparable rift between the colleagues. The conflict boils down to Assange maintaining that any documents they release should be done so without any editing on their part, while Berg argues that any information that could trace back to the anonymous individuals who provided the documents should be redacted for their protection.
Setting aside any debate about how closely the film hues to the facts (these arguments get dredged up any time a film sets out to tell any sort of real-life story), it fails to properly dramatize why these events matter. It attempts to do so, occasionally checking in with Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Department officials dealing with the fallout of the cable leaks, but their scenes are so haphazardly presented that they barely register. Singer's script also seems undecided on its feelings about Assange himself, spending the first half of the film championing his cause, then demonizing him in the second. The script fails to offer up any real insight into the man and his motivations. I won't even get into the way it dismisses whistleblower Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning) as a soldier whose role in the leaks was revealed as a result of online "bragging," a harmful bit of misrepresentation of the actual circumstances.
Director Bill Condon has previously shown great skill in translating complicated individuals to the big screen, in biopics "Gods and Monsters" and "Kinsey," but here seems at a loss for how to add urgency to a subject that is not inherently cinematic — there's only so many ways to make actors hunched over laptops exciting. He resorts to relying on flashy motion graphics and a propulsive techno score (courtesy of composer Carter Burwell) as a source of excitement. Condon repeatedly uses metaphorical representation of WikiLeaks' online network, depicted as an endless expanse of desks and monitors, so the actors can wander around in a more visually interesting environment, but it comes across as gimmicky and more than a little silly. Another method, mercifully discarded early on in the film, involves projecting the typed words onto the actors; a tactic that's straight out of early 90's techno-thrillers like "Hackers" and "The Net."
Benedict Cumberbatch is quite good as the enigmatic Assange, even managing to overcome the fact that in his white wig he looks exactly like Tilda Swinton, but his performance isn't enough to overcome the script's deficiencies. Brühl also does what he can with his character, but as the audience surrogate he's somewhat of a blank slate, leaving the film without a compelling lead to care about.
"The Fifth Estate" ends on a rather odd note, with Cumberbatch, in character as Assange, discussing his displeasure with the film and advising the audience to seek out the truth for themselves. It's hard to argue with his statement, and those who are interested in the story of WikiLeaks, and Assange himself, will likely be better off doing exactly that.